Photo courtesy of Courtney Lee Yip.
The Canadians have done it again. This time, they’ve brought a versatile and highly bearded frontman by the name of Ben Caplan into our collective consciousness. Caplan hails from the Nova Scotian city of Halifax and leads a band called The Casual Smokers, which he says is comprised of a “core” of just a few other members. However, on his upcoming record the group will primarily be made up of a revolving door of hired musicians. That said, nothing’s set in stone with The Casual Smokers and Caplan prefers to keep it that way. He last released In The Time of The Great Remembering in 2011 but assures us another one is on the way, which he promises will be more “polished” and with a more honed focus on melody. BTR had a chance to speak with Caplan as he was “sitting next to a fire pit” and free to discuss the theatrical elements of what he does and the city he’s coming from.
Caplan comes from a long line of what he calls “kooky” musicians from Halifax, where he says the city was most vibrant “in the ‘90s, it’s been a little quieter of late.” The second comment doesn’t seem to shake Caplan’s faith in the music scene of his home city. He says that what makes the city great is the people it attracts: “artists and intellectuals and kooks” from “all of the other surrounding neighborhoods.” The city has five colleges so when put together it is bound to create something interesting and urgent. As one of the lesser talked-about provinces for Americans, the music of Nova Scotia seems to be a part of their culture that just begs more discussion in North America. The province boasts “a lot of fiddle music and Celtic-style stuff” and Caplan, a proponent of unusual instrumentation, lists some of the instruments that Nova Scotia is known for such as “bagpipes and bodhrans.” All of this seems to factor in to what Caplan does now, eclectic folk-informed music.
While Caplan was growing up in Halifax during the ‘90’s and this boom of music, he says “all these labels were going to Halifax” to capitalize on the “Halifax indie-rock vibe” that was allegedly going on. This seems to have only existed for a brief period as Caplan doesn’t believe that could really happen anymore as he says “the music industry then and now are in such different worlds.” As a summation of what he believed to have been a golden era of Canadian music, he says that Halifax was “Canada’s Seattle in the ‘90s” to really drive the point home of what he grew up with. One act in particular really seemed to grab him at a young age, the age when you see a band in a small club that seems like they’re playing to you and only you.
“One of the bigger performers for me went as Wax Mannequin from Hamilton, Ontario. There’s this other guy Geoff Berner from Vancouver and both of them did very different things but both were just a little bit off-kilter. I had studied a lot of theater when I was younger and there was something sort of theatrical about those performances that really inspired me. In different ways, each of them, with Wax Mannequin it’s like every lyric he sings, every word he says onstage is like the most important thing that he has ever said… ever. He has this spectacular way of maintaining this beautiful intensity the whole way through the show. He really means everything he says and because of that he will wind up doing these bizarre things like ripping of the sleeves of his suit and things like that,” says Caplan.
It pretty much goes without saying that the theatrical element is now part of Ben Caplan’s stage performance, seeing that he was so impacted by the personalities of these performers growing up. With his own performances, he’s not quite sure how the audience perceives him but he says that if he were to “put it into words, I would need to do it live.” He’s doing it live, everyone! Caplan believes he’s “larger than life onstage” but that he places a high premium on being “present” and “authentic.” He strives to make each show special for the audience, so as not to give off the impression that he rehearsed the entire show. He believes with full conviction that he can formulate a completely unique experience for each specific crowd if he just abides by one rule: to stay “present.” When it comes to “rehearsing” that unique experience, he wants to be fine-tuned but try to make the show an “open, communal, improvisatory journey.”
Being mostly a solo artist of sorts, Caplan has enlisted quite a number of people into the fold over time with instruments ranging from upright bass, melodica, and Caplan himself playing banjo. With In The Time of The Great Remembering, Caplan had more of a tight line-up with just five members and he generally toured solo in promotion for it. On his unnamed new record, Caplan says there’s a “core rhythm section” but an additional “17 or 18 players.” Unlike a traditional band where the members are completely solidified and on payroll, the future of The Casual Smokers relies more on the availability of the individual players who are masters of their own domain respectively.
“It’s a very hard thing to predict. Everybody is trying to figure out their situation; what makes them happy, musically and personally. Things are in flux… who knows? My goal is to just try to create as positive an experience as possible to create a collaborative environment,” says Caplan.
With Caplan’s new record that he’s working on, he says it will feature “more of the same, some different stuff” to remain as enigmatic as possible about it. We’ll probably just have to listen to it. One sonic change will be a heavier emphasis on “Eastern European stuff” that he happened upon whilst traveling.
“It just started coming out at a certain point. In 2007 I took a trip backpacking around Europe and I saw a Balkan brass band performing in a square in Antwerp. It blew my mind and I bought the CD. I stood there listening for a few hours and started getting into those kinds of sounds; Balkan music, Roma music, klezmer music, Hungarian stuff. Just starting to poke my nose into that world and if you listen to enough of it, it starts falling back out again,” says Caplan.
Much like the Halifax indie shows of the ‘90’s, Caplan is taking the sounds he encounters and funneling into his own authentic voice.
To get inspired all over again with Ben Caplan, click here.
Check out Ben Caplan’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.